One of the most famous of all Irish language proverbs is "an rud is annamh is iontach". It means: "What's rare is wonderful."
With all due respect to my ancestors, I don't like that proverb. Or rather, I don't like what it often implies.
I suppose it's inescapably true that rare things are remarkable, and in itself there's nothing wrong with that. Gold and precious stones and microstates and bizarre coincidences all make the world a more interesting place. What I really don't like is the implication that only rare things can be wonderful, and that familiarity breeds contempt.
I personally don't find this to be the case. I agree with G.K. Chesterton that:
The world is as wild as an old wives' tale
And strange the plain things are.
One instance of this common assumption that only rare things are wonderful, and one that particularly vexes me, is the matter of snow in Ireland.
Fact: snow is one of my favourite things in the whole world. Fact: I grew up in Dublin, where it hardly ever snows.
People often connect these facts, and tell me that I would soon get tired of snow, and come to regard it as a bother, if I lived in Colorado or some such snowy place.
I protest that this is not the case. After all, I've been working in a library for fifteen years, and my sense of wonder at being surrounded by thousands of books has not diminished. Quite the opposite, in fact.
This assumption-- and the whole mentality that only what is rare is wonderful-- bothers me so much that I made it a minor theme of a novel I wrote a few years ago. The novel was titled The Snowman: A Horror Story. It wasn't particularly good, nor do I think it's publishable, but I got quite absorbed in the story. Partly it was an excuse to write a story where it snows all the way through.
|My Snowman didn't look like this, but it's the same idea...|
I very deliberately had my hero reflect, midway through the story, that the whole experience-- which lasts several months-- had not diminished his lifelong love of snow in the slightest. And, at the very end, my hero and heroine are given the opportunity, by the expiring Snowman, to escape into another world. Out of several worlds he shows them, they choose one where it is snowing heavily. (My initial idea was that the guy would not get the girl. In the end, I didn't have the heart for this. So, though they are not a couple as they step into the snowy otherworld in the novel's last scene, we fully expect them to end up together.)
|Ballymun, where I grew up, under snow. Undated.|
I have always loved snow.
I grew up at a bad time for it. My father would often tell me about the thick blankets of snow that Dublin experienced in his own childhood, and even later than that. In fact, I was told that I was just too young to remember some gala snow years.
I've often mentioned the community magazine he edited (and mostly wrote!), The Ballymun News. Two covers of The Ballymun News fed into my fascination with snow. One was painted by a local artist called Tom Shannon. I was a fan of Tom Shannon because he would give me Yorkie bars. The picture showed children skiing down a snowy slope, and it had the same child-like charm of a Lowry canvas.
The second cover was drawn by my older brother, in ink. It showed snowflakes falling through the sky, some seen from up very close, against the backdrop of the Ballymun flats and towers. I watched him draw this, and was fascinated by the way he sectioned off the black sky to fill it in, section by section. The perspective is very strange, since the viewer is apparently suspended in the sky. This added to the fascination of the picture, for me. In fact, both of these pictures have haunted me since childhood. (Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of either.)
Some years later, I remember a classroom discussion on the possibility of a white Christmas. This was in a French class in 1992, when I was fourteen years old. It never happened, nor did anyone really expect it to happen. The idea of a white Christmas, to me, was a little like the idea of owning a jacuzzi. Such things happened to other people, in other countries.
My hour would come, though. In the winters of 2009 and 2010, Ireland experienced what became known as 'the Big Freeze'. We had more snow in those two years than we'd had in my whole life before that, including an honest-to-goodness white Christmas. (I had actually experienced a white Christmas a few years before this, but it had been a mere sprinkling. This was the full Hallmark treatment.)
Maddeningly, Irish people were already so sick of the snow, after a few weeks of it, that they were speculating on the possibility of a 'green Christmas'-- much to my disgust!
For me, the whole period was wonderful. Particularly wonderful were the three days in a row that my workplace was closed on account of the snow. Each day, the text informing me came late in the evening, making it all the sweeter.
At this time, I also built my first ever snowman-- in my late twenties!
Why am I so fascinated by snow?
I've thought about this for a long time, and I've come to realise that there are a few different reasons.
First of all, snow is both a symbol and an instance of something that has thrilled me all my life. I have mentioned it on this blog before. It's the idea (and, indeed, the reality) of a revolution that changes everything but leaves everything intact-- a revolution that transforms but does not destroy.
This, I venture to claim, was the sort of revolution that Christ brought about. He did not come to liberate his people politically, or to transform society in any outwards sense. Indeed, he instructed his listeners to give Caesar what belonged to Caesar. St. Paul tells us to obey every earthly power, and even admonishes slaves to obey their masters.
And yet, Christ's message was revolutionary. "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away."
As Christ did, so did his missionaries. Christianity has been criticized for adopting itself to existing cultural forms, such as Halloween-- as though there is something sneaky or lamentable about this. For my own part, I cannot see it as anything other than entirely admirable-- even beautiful.
Just as grace perfects but does cancel nature, Christianization was a revolution that transformed but did not (as far as possible) destroy. Nothing could be further from the vandalism that the world has recently witnessed in Palmyra, and other places where ISIS and their like have taken hold. (And the same might be said of the Marxist revolutions of the twentieth century, or indeed-- to some extent-- of the consumerist tidal wave in the developed world.)
The transformation that snow effects is not of this kind.
When you wake up to find your hometown covered in snow, you find yourself in a place that is completely new, and yet familiar. The air itself seems to glow. It's a perfect illustration of the Chestertonian principle I have cited so often in this blog: "We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder with an idea of welcome....the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure."
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it...
I didn't spend very much time thinking about Christianity when I was a little boy, so how does all this explain my childhood love of snow?
It does indeed explain it, because this idea-- the idea of a revolution that transforms but does not destroy-- fascinated me long before I was able to articulate it, or before I was even aware of it. It explains my lifelong adoration of Christmas, Halloween and other festivals-- a few Christmas decorations makes the most familiar room otherworldly, while still remaining familiar. Halloween bonfires and fireworks do the same for the most familiar neighbourhood.
This principle explains my love of the horror genre, where the everyday is so often made nightmarish (but often seductively so). My favourite quotation in this regard is from philosopher Michael Mendelson: "We need only be told that there is a body in the next room, and suddenly all is transformed." Indeed, even the flickering of a light, the hearing of a local legend, or a strange sound can do the same trick...
It's not only horror that achieves this, but all art, and all poetry. "To make the familiar strange, and the strange familar" is the mantra of the journalist, but it serves pretty well for the artist and the poet too.
Here I cannot help mentioning my love of coloured reflective surfaces, like Christmas baubles and beer bottles, and of single-tint photographs, both of which bring about a similar 'revoluton'.
Taking the principle to its ultimate, we reach the awe-inspiring heights of the sacramental system itself-- the water of baptism, the words of absolution, the ordinary become sacred.
I have touched on another aspect of what I love about snow-- that is, its otherworldiness.
We say that snow falls, and indeed the phrase 'softly falling snow' is one of my favourite phrases ever. But snow doesn't fall-- it dances. It glides, pirouettes, eddies and whirls. Snow is a veritable airborne phantasmagoria (which is one of my favourite words). There is something ghostly, something ethereal, something dream-like about it.
Another word that always come to mind when we think of snow is 'purity'. 'As pure as the driven snow' is a saying that is usually used sarcastically, but it's no less evocative for that.
As I have explained in my post defending priggishness, and in my post on the Laurence Binyon poem 'The Burning of the Leaves', I've had a lifelong fascination with purity and purification. I suppose we all do. We hanker after purification of some kind-- even an out-and-out hedonist who takes as his motto "have a good time, all the time" is striving after his own vision of purity.
Fire is one symbol of purity and of purification. Snow is another. It is a natural metaphor for all that is fresh, innocent, pristine. It glows, just like fire does.
|Our Lady of the Snows|
To quote Chesterton again: "The whole theory of the Church on virginity might be symbolized by the statement that white is a colour, not the mere absence of a colour."
The exaltation of celibacy in Christianity was something that repelled me for a long time. I have always seen something mystical in the union of man and woman, and I wondered how a deliberate privation could in any way be pleasing to God. I much preferred the emphasis upon marriage in rabbinic Judaism.
I eventually came to realise that Christianity does see something mystical in the union of man and woman, but that virginity is a higher ideal still. It was only in reading about the saints that I eventually came to see its beauty-- more of a 'heart knowledge' than a 'head knowledge'. And the bold beauty of virginity is like the gleaming beauty of a snowy landscape.
What applies to celibacy applies just as much to chastity-- and it also applies, in my view, to humility. These are all virtues that seem unnatural, otherworldly, even cold. They are not at all appealing when we contemplate them for ourselves. It's only when we see them in others that we realize their beauty, and wish to emulate it. And their beauty, too, is like the gleaming beauty of a snowy landscape.
But what is the highest beauty that snow can symbolize, even above the beauty of virginity and chastity and humility?
Surely it is the pure white of the Host, the "source and summit" of the Catholic faith, which was prefigured by the white manna that fell from heaven-- the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the appearance of sacramental bread. Here, the purity imaged by snow and fire, and every other symbol, finds its ultimate reality.
Was the Eucharist what I was yearning for as a little boy, when the sight of snow falling from heaven thrilled me so much?
My faith tells me that it was-- indeed, that every yearning that every human being feels is ultimately a hunger for the Eucharist, of which J.R.R. Tolkien so beautifully wrote: "I put before you the one great thing to love on Earth, the Blessed Sacrament....There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on Earth."
We all have our foretastes of Heaven, our 'intimations of immortality'. I see nothing at all incongruous in taking snow as a symbol of the beauty beyond all beauty, the wonder beyond all wonder. Certainly the sight of snowflakes dancing in air-- like all wonder-stirring sights-- fills me with a wistfulness so deep that nothing in this world could satisfy it.